With the Copa América getting underway this weekend, we turn our attention to Group B which includes a perennial underachiever and one of this edition’s guest nations.
Manager: Lionel Scaloni
Captain: Lionel Messi
Key player: Lionel Messi
One to watch: Giovani Lo Celso
Probably Brazil’s biggest threat in this Copa América, Argentina head into this year’s edition a difficult side to judge.
On one hand, they have looked a better and more organised team since Lionel Scaloni’s appointment following the disastrous 2018 FIFA World Cup, but on the other hand, they are yet to be tested by a top international side in a competitive game, and their first match in this tournament is opposite an inform Colombia side.
The only warm-up game Argentina had in preparation for the tournament was against Nicaragua, whom they handily brushed aside 5-1, Lionel Messi scoring a brace and only playing 45 minutes.
However, much like Brazil’s 7-0 mauling of Honduras, these games must be taken with a pinch of salt, as neither opponent was likely to give them a competitive match, maybe only there to act as a morale boost.
Scaloni is reportedly dead set on a 4-3-3. His only issue is that he does not know his starting 11, not good this close to the tournament, where the kick-off on match day two against Colombia.
Franco Armani is almost seemingly sure to get the nod over Boca Juniors shot-stopper Esteban Andrada, while Renzo Saravia and Nicolás Tagliafico are set to feature at full-back.
The only question mark remaining in defence is who the first choice partner to Manchester City’s Nicolás Otamendi will be.
Germán Pezzella was almost guaranteed to start until a nasty facial injury left him sidelined.
He is now back to 100% fitness, but faces stern competition from Tottenham Hotspur’s Juan Foyth.
In midfield, the duo of Leandro Paredes and Giovani Lo Celso – who has struck up an envious attacking relationship with Lionel Messi and must be watched attentively in Brazil – are guaranteed starters, with either one of Guido Pizarro or Guido Rodríguez set to feature as the anchor man in midfield.
It is Argentina’s attack that is causing the coach the most problems.
Scaloni must choose one player from a possible three to partner Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero up front.
Either play Ángel Di María on the left side of a front three, or either Lautaro Martínez or Matías Suárez as a front two with Messi just behind in a 4-3-1-2, something he tried in the friendly against Nicaragua with positive results.
Argentina are not favourites for this tournament, and rightly so but I do not see much to split between them and hosts Brazil.
If this team plays well from the opening game and Messi hits form at the right time, they could quite possibly go all the way.
Manager: Carlos Queiros
Captain: Radamel Falcao
Key player: Radamel Falcao
One to watch: Wílmar Barrios
While many not familiar with South American football would have Argentina as dead certs to top this group with relative ease, that is quite simply not the case, and they can not afford to get complacent against this Colombia side, who on their day can beat any nation in the world and could potentially go on and win this tournament.
While wins over nations such as Nicaragua and Honduras have got to be taken lightly, a 0-3 thumping of fellow dark horse Peru, away from home no less, must not, as Carlos Quieros’ side sent out a message to the rest of the group with an emphatic win less than a week before their opening game against Argentina.
A 0-1 win away from home against Japan back in March is not to be laughed at either, as ‘La Tricolor’ have won six of their eight games following the FIFA World Cup, losing only once, and the other being a 0-0 draw opposite, you guessed it, Argentina.
Although it is worth noting Colombia played their full team in that game, a Messi-less Argentina did not.
Colombia will set up in a 4-4-1-1, with David Ospina in goal and big name defenders such as Everton’s Yerry Mina, Tottenham Hotspur’s Davinson Sánchez and Atlético Madrid’s Santiago Arias protecting him.
Further forward, former Boca Juniors and current Zenit Saint Petersburg midfielder Wílmar Barrios will provide further defensive cover from the base of midfield, while the attacking threat will come mainly from wide-men Edwin Cardona, Juan Cuadrado, James Rodríguez and the ever deadly ‘EL Tigre’, Radamel Falcao.
Falcao, despite his injury problems and being 33 now, seems to be getting better with age, and Colombia’s tournament hopes will depend mainly on his goals, with his understudy Luis Muriel only bagging three goals in 23 caps, and other back-up striker Duván Zapata only managing one in nine.
If Colombia could hold Argentina to a draw, or better yet for them, manage to grab all three points, all that would be left needing is two strong performances against Paraguay and tournament debutants Qatar that could see them finish the group in first place, and push on to win their second Copa América, with their one and only triumph coming back in 2001, where they defeated Mexico 1-0 in the final.
Manager: Eduardo Berizzo
Captain: Gustavo Gómez
Key player: Miguel Almirón
One to watch: Derlis González
Coming in to this Copa América, Paraguay do have some positives to take with them.
However, they also have a lot of negatives, which they need to rectify and eradicate quickly if they wish to have any chance of advancing through an extremely competitive Group B.
The good news for this Paraguay side is that they can score goals, but that is about it.
Argentine head coach Eduardo Berizzo is in his fourth managerial role since 2017, while the side concedes an awful number of goals, 18 in their last 12, while the clean sheet in their 2-0 friendly win over Guatemala on Sunday night was their first one since August 31st, 2017.
Not good with games against Messi and Agüero and James and Falcao coming up within four days of each other.
Berizzo seems to prefer a 4-3-3 formation, but it has heralded mixed results.
Only eight years ago Paraguay were finishing as runners-up in this tournament only to a Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez inspired Uruguay, while they finished fourth in the 2015 edition.
But now, bar an excellent team effort as well as some individual brilliance from the likes of Newcastle United’s Miguel Almirón and Santos’s Derlis González, who has a measly 5 goals in 33 internationals, they may now find it too difficult to even advance as one of the two best third-placed teams, as heavy defeats to both Argentina and Colombia could see them land in deep trouble.
Manager: Félix Sánchez Bas
Captain: Hassan Al-Haydos
Key player: Hassan Al-Haydos
One to watch: Almoez Ali
Although some may have needed to look twice to ensure that they were not seeing things, their eyes did not deceive them.
Qatar, from Western Asia and the current Asian Cup champions, are making their bow and are competing in a football tournament halfway around the world, and part of it seems right.
In preparation for hosting the 2022 World Cup, this team needs as many competitive games as possible, and what better way than placing them in arguably the toughest group in arguably the toughest and most grueling international tournament in the world.
In advance of staging the World Cup, the Qatari FA appointed astute Catalan coach Félix Sánchez Bas as manager of the U19s squad, and progressed him through each age group with the players, and now, they are reaping the rewards of planning and preparation, with a competitive team that is seemingly filled with the right balance of youth and experience.
Fourteen of the 23 man squad is under the age of 26, and with a 0-2 loss to Brazil being their only blip in their last eight matches, they have every right to go in to this competition confident that they can at least progress past the group stage.
After all, they are the reigning Asian champions and have nothing to lose.
Coach Sánchez Bas realises that Qatar are not the most gifted of nations, and so opted to build his team on a solid defensive foundation, which has brought success.
While up the other end, the experienced captain Al-Haydos, who has 26 goals in 120 internationals leads the line, alongside the young and energetic striker Almoez Ali, who at the age of 22 already 19 senior goals to his name in only 40 caps, and who also played for the U20 and U23s for the current coach.
If Qatar can keep the score lines low against Argentina and Colombia with their defensive approach, or maybe even grab a point, while squeezing past Paraguay, they could easily progress as on of the best third-placed teams.
Although it seems unlikely, they would be the first nation to win two national trophies on different continents.
However, whatever happens, one thing is clear, Qatar are not just here to make up the numbers.